Family Secrets

Reviewed by Gisèle M. Baxter

One assumption often made about small town life is that everyone knows everyone else, which would seem to make keeping secrets difficult. Another assumption, however, is of a sort of general reticence that seems at odds with this age of social media and the pressure to be constantly connected, so that small towns seem dislocated in time even when used as the settings for contemporary novels.

Monique Polak’s young adult novel Miracleville is set in the present, in the Quebec town of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, where two teenaged sisters respond in different ways to their family’s catering to the influx of tourist pilgrims drawn by the saint’s association with healing miracles. The elder Ani is herself religious, while her younger sister Colette is wild and boy-crazy. Ironically, Colette responds more practically when their mother is injured: while Ani frantically reads accounts of miracles, Colette reveals an almost instinctive ability to care for the paralyzed woman as she inches towards therapy and recovery. The events push Ani into a process of discovery: as she strives to learn more about the basis of her faith, she finds herself learning more about a priest who has been an influence on her, and about her mother, who despite her physical similarity to Ani, was in her youth much more like Colette.

Miracleville’s use of Ani’s voice, present tense, and frequent dialogue propels the plot, and allows for identification with this girl’s quest for identity, if not with her preoccupations. The tone is brisk, often comical and straightforward, yet there is a keen sense of observation in the precisely chosen detail. The pace offsets what could otherwise be an overabundance of pathos and melodrama given the number of issues this short novel introduces: the discovery of sexuality, the loss of faith, the betrayal
of vows, disability, misplaced desire, and the intimacy and limitations of small town life. Polak’s well-established reputation as a children’s/young adult writer is apparent in the confidence with which she maintains this balancing act. As is often the case in fiction assuming a young audience and dealing with personal crisis, the resolution is perhaps a little too neat, but there is still a sense of latency, appropriate given the ages of the sisters. Miracleville would make a good prelude to discovery of Dodie Smith’s supremely confident bildungsroman I Capture the Castle, which defies easy audience assumptions.

Jamie Zeppa is better known as an essayist and travel writer, whose Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan has been much lauded. Every Time We Say Goodbye bodes well for her addition of novelist to her writing resume. This family saga spans much of the twentieth century, focusing on several generations of a family in Sault Ste. Marie, and the eventual discovery of truths about parentage by Dawn Turner as she grows up in the latter part of the century and strives to find a niche, a sense of home and belonging. Zeppa’s use of a fairly even third-person narrative allows several characters a voice and perspective, while also permitting a fairly detailed development of setting: this is a very specifically located novel. The departure from strict chronology through the frequent insertions of Dawn’s story allows a greater sense of cause and effect, of transitions in attitude and opportunity, and gives a greater depth to the story’s eventual arrival at revelation and overtures of forgiveness and reconciliation. Given the intensely personal nature of the story, the maintenance of third-person narration does seem to rob Zeppa’s tale of a strong sense of differentiation of personality among its key characters. However, Zeppa does not aim at the sort of regional Gothicism or eccentricity sometimes associated with chroniclers of a small specific place. The evenness of tone keeps the novel from the sort of sentimentality and melodrama its densely clustered series of events might otherwise achieve, and yet allows for more depth and detail, and a subtle sense of the transition of eras, than the rapid pace and relative economy of Miracleville.

This is unsurprising, as Every Time We Say Goodbye is a story partly concerned with youth, rather than a story primarily aimed at a young audience. And yet, while Zeppa takes on all stages of life through her characters, she is perhaps most effective in narrating Dawn’s childhood, in the way she captures the child’s imperfect comprehension of observed, absorbed detail, and the child’s increasingly determined yearning for a reliable family and a place in the world.

This review “Family Secrets” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 183-84.

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